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Are Republicans scared of Florida?

The Sunshine State's primary on March 15 could be more important than ever -– but it could also be a complete dud.

ORLANDO -- In the past two Republican presidential contests, Florida’s primary has been decisive, with the state providing badly-needed boosts to the eventual nominee. But this time around there’s uncertainty: Florida’s March 15 primary could be more important than ever – but it could also be a complete dud.

This murkiness provided the backdrop for Tuesday’s cattle call in Orlando, an invitation-only event organized by Rick Scott, Florida’s Republican governor. Scott wants to play a major role in next year’s presidential primary, but it’s a complicated matter because two of the top candidates – former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio – are Floridians and enjoy obvious built-in advantages. (Actually, a total of four candidates are officially residents of the state, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson now claiming it as their home, though neither has ever run for office here.)

In recent campaigns, Florida has been a must-compete venue for GOP candidates. It’s where Rudy Giuliani, after concluding he couldn’t compete in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, finally decided he had to make a stand in 2008; when he lost Florida, he ended his campaign on the spot. Conversely, it was his win in the ’08 Florida primary that solidified Sen. John McCain’s grip on the nomination. And in 2012, it was Florida where Mitt Romney steadied his ship after his South Carolina debacle and sunk Newt Gingrich once and for all.

But the presence of two bona fide favorite son candidates was enough to prompt Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to suggest last week that contesting the state might not be worth it. The reality, of course, is that there are a lot of ways this could shake out.

The scenario that Florida’s political class salivates over involves a defining showdown in next March’s primary between Bush and Rubio, with the nomination settled by the people who know them best. It would be a dogfight; the two men start out locked in a virtual tie in their home state. And it could happen. Say Rubio were to win Iowa and South Carolina, with Bush taking New Hampshire and Nevada. That would establish them as the clear front-runners and would thin the field dramatically. In this situation, the verdict of their home state’s voters would then loom large. And in this situation, it would be futile for any of the other surviving candidates to spend time and resources in the state.

This is especially true because of the new rules imposed by the Republican National Committee, which has decreed that any state wishing to hold a winner-take-all primary can do so no earlier than March 15, the date that Florida opted for. This means that Florida will be later in the calendar than usual, since a number of states have moved their primaries to earlier dates in March by agreeing to award their delegates proportionally. So if Bush and Rubio are both viable candidates when Florida rolls around, there’ll be even less reason for other candidates to compete, since anything short of an outright victory will net them zero delegates.

Florida could also be non-competitive – a state the political world ends up ignoring altogether. For instance, if Bush were to win big in the early primaries while Rubio got wiped out, then the Florida primary would likely serve as a home state cakewalk for Bush, one that would earn him a nice delegate haul but limited press coverage. Or if Rubio were to win big early with Bush falling flat on his face, Florida would presumably be a lay-up for Rubio.

What it would take to make the state a true free-for all would be for both Bush and Rubio to flame out – or at least underperform – in the initial contests, which is well within the realm of possibility. Bush is already far behind in Iowa, could well get tripped up in New Hampshire, and just got some bad news in Nevada, where a move to shift from a Tea Party-friendly caucus to a Bush-friendly primary fizzled this week. He’s also facing a headache in South Carolina, where local Sen. Lindsey Graham, if he’s still running come next February’s primary, will likely peel off some Bush supporters.

Lose all of these states and Bush is unlikely to make it to Florida with much of a pulse. Rubio, too, could easily go zero for four. At that point, Florida would play its usual role: a hugely important showdown that every candidate still standing can’t afford to skip.

So it wasn’t surprising that Walker accepted Scott’s invitation to the Orlando cattle call – along with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Huckabee, Bush and Rubio. At the end of his remarks, Scott promised that “we’ll be back many more times.” And that’s the smart thing for any candidate to say at this point. But it’s an open question whether he’ll still be saying it a few months from now.